The American Promise
The American promise is a belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone. “Everything is bigger in America,” I was often told, before I left Uganda. Surely, it can’t be everything. So, I thought that local flights in the United States of America (hereafter the US or America) would be on the biggest airplanes. I was mistaken. The airplane I boarded from Dallas to Manhattan was the smallest I’ve ever taken. No, not to Manhattan of New York! There is another place named Manhattan in the State of Kansas. I learnt that many places in the US have the same names. “That’s normal,” an American friend told me. Is the country so big that they run out of names to give places? These two experiences set the tone for the beginning of my time in the US. Do not get me wrong, America is such an enormous and diverse country (incapable of being summed up in one blog); but in this post, I will tell you about my visit to a special American museum that gave me mixed thoughts about this country, and the stark contrast between America and other places I have been to. Nothing would have prepared me for the “Land of the Free.”
“Boarding group 8 may now board,” I heard the airline official call us through the faintly sounding speakers. “Finally,” I thought to myself. I was tired. After a sixteen hour flight from Doha, Qatar to Dallas, I had to wait another four hours before getting on this flight. When I first landed in the US, I couldn’t help but notice how large the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport was. It took our airplane about 10 minutes find the gate where we were supposed to depart from. Compared to my country’s singular airport: Entebbe, Dallas Fort Worth was a goliath. Even the size of the air port didn’t take away from the fact that I was hungry. I planned to eat food at the Airport. Just after getting off the escalators, I saw the bright colorful Burger King logo from afar. I knew then that this was my que to get something to eat. On the dashboard, the burger price was nine dollars. Yet, when I made the order at the counter, I was asked to pay about twelve dollars and a couple of cents. I didn’t understand why. Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier if the displayed price was the actual price of the item? I learnt that the displayed price did not include taxes. In my short lived international travel, all other places I had been to were more straightforward, the price displayed is what you had to pay.
When I entered the aircraft, I had to walk sideways because aisle was small. Probably also because I am a little bit overweight, so the aisle felt narrow. I staggered to the back since my laptop bag kept on being trapped between the aisle seats of each row. My seat was in the second last row from the tail of the airplane. It is the furthest I have sat in an airplane. I took my seat, placed my laptop bag under the seat in front of me, and took a deep breath. Later, my neighbor came in. He smiled at me in a vague insincere manner; just moving his cheeks and lips without opening his mouth. The smile was artificial enough to make me feel noticed, but also superficial for me to see that it wasn’t genuine. He was a well rounded muscular gentleman: everything I am not. He wore a baseball cap and white shirt. His hairy arms were noticeable even from three meters away. I said “Hello.” “Hi,” he responded, before he pulled his cap to cover his eyes and leaned his head back on the seat. That is the only time I saw his face. I arrived safely in Manhattan, where we (alongside other scholars) were going to spend the next three weeks.
In Kansas, we had different classes, sessions and group activities. I attended the Rodeo in Riley County. A rodeo, as I witnessed it, was a midwestern American sport where “cowboys” and “cowgirls” did different competitive exercises with animals. This ranged from wrestling bulls to riding them involuntarily. Some scholars did not attend the rodeo because of the perceived mistreatment of animals in this sport. Regardless, it was a full house with over 2000 people in the stands. While this animated event went on, there were breaks between the different routines. In one of the breaks, a comedian was invited to speak. The comedian had a horse beside him as a prop. This was unusual especially because he wasn’t on top of the horse. Everyone wondered what he was going to do. He began to speak. While leaning towards the tail and the back of the horse, he said “uuhmmm…this smells like Obamacare!” The crowd erupted into laughter. I found this rather surprising. I had read about Obamacare and how as a policy, it sought to subsidize the heavily commercialized healthcare in America. It could be that this is what freedom of expression meant, or perhaps, it was just a banter for a good laugh in this part of America.
Throughout the three weeks in Kansas, among other things, we visited a bison ranch, toured the State Capitol and the most profound of all was the visit to the Brown v Board of Education Museum.
Standing at the center of the Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka on Saturday 30 July 2022 was something I was looking forward to from the day I arrived in the US. Brown v Board of Education of Topeka is a special United States Supreme Court decision which declared that the policy by public schools to separate students based on race was unconstitutional. The case was brought by parents on behalf of black children who wanted admission to a public school designated for “whites” only. It is difficult to believe that, until 17 May 1954, schools were separated based on race in America. Possibly, this should not have been surprising considering dark history of slavery in this country. A stark reminder of the leaps this society has taken.
Black and white children went to different schools. This was permitted under the laws of different states and justified as, “Separate but equal.” I remembered in 2013, when we first discussed this court decision in a critical race theory class in Uganda. This visit was momentous for me, because everything began at that school. For historical purposes, the school was turned into a historic site and museum. The Museum documented the journey of the civil rights movement to this landmark decision.
We arrived at this historic site in the burning heat of summer. My forehead felt like it had been forged from a hot spring. The site is a majestic red-brick building that stretches out in a regular style. Grand in its minimalism. At its center is a tower-like entrance with a large gray door fitted with twelve panels of glasses. My first sight was the different rooms within the museum where they played historical videos about the journey it took to change this unfair law from Topeka, all the way through to Washington where the Supreme Court decision was issued. Other rooms depicted videos of what happened thereafter.
Although I was excited to visit this historic site, my heart was so heavy when I watched the videos. I am not American; it is obviously evident as you listen to my heavily infused Ugandan accent. I grew up in Uganda, which is a country in East Africa. I am “black.” My chest grew heavy as I watched the videos that described the situation in America in the 1950’s. For instance, one video showed protests of white men that were beating up black people. This made me feel hollow and created huge lumps in my throat. One white supremacist in the video said, “Segregation now, segregation to day, and segregation forever.” This did not happen long ago. It was not happening 200 years ago. It happened less than 75 years ago. What was supposed to be an exciting visit at such a historic site led me to wonder. What is it about race that made people so irrational? What makes us different? Is it the color of our skin? Should the color of our skin matter?
At the closing ceremony of the pre-academic programme, the Acting Director quoted Senator J. William Fulbright, “The essence of intercultural education is the acquisition of empathy. The ability to see the world as others see it and to allow for the possibility that others may see something that we have failed to see, or see it more accurately. The simple purpose of the exchange programme is to erode the culturally rooted mistrust that sets nations against one another. The exchange program is not a panacea but an avenue of hope.” My travel to America is courtesy of the Fulbright Program for which Senator Fulbright played a great part in its commencement. The pre-academic program brought together a team of Fulbright Association Scholars from over 20 countries. I have now moved to the University of Michigan Law School where I shall be based. Being immersed in a different cultural experience, learning from people from other parts of the world, and reflecting on the dark history of this Country, gave me more empathy and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are opinions of the author and do not reflect those of any institutions or organizations mentioned.
Great post. This is inspiring.
I have read critically, the article, it’s hilarious to expect, you can easily be disappointed. Most of the Ugandan or African perspective about America is more of Gold and silver and nothing else. It now gets off the mind of greener pastures but exposure to the world of reality truth.
Thank you so much my lecture Joel Basoga it’s a great lesson all of us need to learn.
Thank you Emmanuel for taking the time to read and for these kind words. Exposure is important in all its aspects. I am glad to hear that you learnt something.
Thank the nolstagic description of your trip. I have been touched by your indelible experience at the Brown vs Board of Education and the ever wise words of Sen. Fulbright. All the best Michigander!
This is extremely powerful
Thank you Counsel Basoga
Thank you Rodrick for these kind words.
An insightful and well expressed piece of writing from Joel – as we have come to expect. Interesting to read how his perceptions met with reality when he actually visited America. I imagine for many, their views about the US are based on films and popular culture – and the reality can be different. No doubt the start of Joel’s American Journey, and I look forward to his further thoughts.
Thank you, Jonathan for these kind words. I agree, there is a difference. I will share more experiences regarding this journey. I will write about Michigan and other states.
A fascinating read! Remindes me of Obama’s 2004 speech at the Boston Convention that placed diversity into a larger context. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you Paul. Yes, I remember that speech at the DNC Convention. Thank you for taking the time to read and for sharing your thoughts.
A very good read.
Thank you, Edgar!
Reading this felt like I was capturing your experiences in real time.
Thank you, Juliet for taking the time to read and for these kind words. I am happy to hear that you shared the experiences in real time.
This is amazing. I love the prose, it’s a well thought out piece. I ever see a country man with an international outlook to life. Keep up. Thanks for the effort!
Thank you, Joseph for these kind words. You are most welcome.
Joel, I felt so good while reading your post. It is so rewarding to really feel what you felt during those 3 weeks at MHK! And to learn from that. All the success in your program! Best wishes ♥️
Thank you Valentina for taking the time to read and for these kind comments. Thank you for assisting and helping us find our way around. MHK was great and offered a lot of reflection points. All the best!
Amazing read,it gives an incredible insight of what America can look like for any individual who isn’t originally from it.Thank you
Thank you Alice for the kind comments. The US is different. They also drive on a different side of the road. It is interesting.
It’s a nice piece Joel, actually an eye opener that shows us that what America is today is not at all what it was then. Thank you.
Yes, it broadens perspectives with a rich historical context. Thank you Rita.
It’s a nice piece Joel, actually an eye opener. I personally didn’t know that racism was this deep in America then. Thank you.
Thanks for your comment Rita. Visiting the museum put a lot of things into perspective, especially the civil rights movement’s efforts. You are welcome.
Hi Joel, you have given the story as it was. I am very proud to have met such a brilliant lawyer like yourself. I have no doubt that some of these experiences will shape you into a very empathetic human being who cares about the well-being of all. I am glad to have witnessed everything you have narrated as I was right besides you. Go on and make this world a better place. Nice piece!
Thank you Silagi for these kind words. Thank you for being a wonderful colleague while in Kansas. I will make my contribution to make this world better. Thanks.
Thankyou for sharing. Reading this article has made me reflect on alot of aspects about America ( the land of opportunity) and what was previously inscribed in my thoughts about racial segregation! If people still did it 1950’s after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights UDHR1948, and we still have cases in this decade like the George Floyd incident. It means we have alot to do as humans!
No one was born hating another for their race or shade! The world has to be a better place for the next generation!
You are welcome, Shebah. I am glad that this post led you to reflect on this social issue. It is interesting that the UDHR had already been proclaimed; yet, the 1950’s were filled with a lot of racial tensions. Thanks for pointing that out. The George Floyd incident is still fresh in my memory. We need to be better and must treat each other better. Human dignity is important.
So inspiring ! great to have you as a friend.
Thanks Erick for these kind words. It is an honour to have you as a friend and colleague.
Definitely a number of points to consider, or should I say reconsider.
An awesome read
You are welcome. Thanks, Adrian for taking the time to read and for the kind words.
Wow,this is well scripted and so insightful Joel.Once again you have done what you do best.Keep going and keep shining Joel.
Thanks Ivan. I am glad that you found this insightful. Thanks for the kind words.
You have some amazing insight into subtle day-to-day scenarios. The fact that you dissected culture from simple interactions is wonderful. It’s been a good read, Joel.
Thank you Asiimwe for these kind words. I am glad that you enjoyed reading this.
Well written, it felt like I was there in real time and wanted to keep reading more and more?. But anyway I love the piece because it’s educative, I can assure you that I have learnt quite a number of things that I didn’t know before. Thank you so much
Thank you Rachael. I am happy to hear that the post was educative. You are most welcome.
Thank you for sharing your experience Joel. It was a great and insightful read and also well written. Looking forward to the next piece. All the best!
Thank you Shirlyne for these kind words. Yes, I will share the next post with you too.
It’s Inspiring to see the world and its beliefs through another’s perspective, living in a generation where the elite dictate what is and what is not unity in diversity opens the mind.
Thank you Isaiah for your comments. Seeing the world through another’s perspectives broadens diversity and a deeper understanding.
Thanks for the insightful experience. Indeed there’s alot to learn from the reality in contrast to our beliefs. Thanks for sharing. As my lecturer, I feel inspired.
Thank you Albert for these kind words. I am glad that you are inspired. I agree, contrasting one’s reality and beliefs brings deeper introspection.
Educational, insightful and inspiring article. Your perspective on life issues is life changing. Thanks Joel
Thank you Uncle. I am happy to hear that this article was educational and inspiring. You are welcome.
Brown v Board of Education is my favourite legal precedent and I remember us discussing it in 2017 during our American Constitutional Law class. It evoked alot of emotions and debate in the class.
Brown v Board of Education is an excellent precedent. I understand why you may categorize it as your favorite. I am glad that you could relate to this post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Nasser.
Hallo Joel, this is very inspirational. Always glad to read from you. More Blessings over to you.
Thank you Keith for these kind words. Amen!
I love how detailed your account is, gives the reader a good insight. I would love to see more of this, wish you the best 🙂
Thank you Atrayee for these kind words. I am glad that this was insightful. I intend to share more posts about my travels.
Excellent insights! Unfortunately, racism is still evident in many aspects of American culture and life. The positive thing is that the laws offer a good degree of protection against racism. This leaves us wondering what the plausible solution would be, if its even a possibility.
Thank you Tonny for these kind words. Your comment raises very valid points. We need to continue the discussion to find a plausible solution.
This is beautiful. Experiences and re-living first hand what the civil rights activists had to go through can be taxing but inspirational. Our history can’t be erased but rather, learnt from.
I hope and pray your time there will be fruitful and productive in terms of understanding the depth of American/African culture.
Thank you Daniella. I agree, history cannot be erased but rather learnt from. That’s probably the point behind this specific museum. Thank you for your kind thoughts and prayers.
Wise comment Daniella. We all learn from our past. I could identify with Joel seeing the faces. For me going to the Genocide Museum in Rwanda was shocking even though I knew about it historically as I studied about Africa before moving here. It brought tears to my eyes. Each country has issues in the past and how we learn from them and try to improve things is important. If we become bitter, it plays into more evil. Thanks for sharing and shedding light.
The past always offers a great perspective into a better future. I agree with you, Margaret, we should all learn from the past. Thank you for sharing your experience at the Genocide Museum in Rwanda. I hope to visit that museum soon. You are most welcome.
Thank you Sharon.
Great read. Wonderful experience
Thank you Denis.
Thank you for sharing your experience,Joel.
Thank you Syndia.
Reading this has really given me another perspective to look at when it comes to the Land of dreams and reading this article really feels like am there just watching what you wrote about it
Nice article Joel
Thank you Derek for the kind words. I am glad that this post has broadened your perspectives. I am glad that you could watch the moment with me.
This was such a great read! I really enjoyed getting to know about your experiences and point of view. Thanks for writing in a way that makes us feel like we were there.
Thank you Brenda for taking the time to read and for your kind words. You are most welcome. I am happy that you enjoyed reading it!
Great post Joel! You capture the key moments very well. It’s my pleasure to read this post and be a part of your memory in our Fulbright community!
Thank you Oravee for taking the time to read and for the feedback. The Fulbright Community is indeed special. Thank you for the kind words. All the best! Let us stay in touch.
Beautiful piece Joel
Thank you Hannah.
Thanks Counsel for such amazing experience, it’s true that many think big about the USA, yet the reality defers. I think this should be a lesson to us Africans. We need to advocate more of our successful stories than failures, and perhaps this is how we are to create a new inspirational Africa to the rest of the world. Thanks Joel, am proud to be your student.
Thank you Stuart for these generous and kind words. I agree, there a number of lessons to pick especially the one’s mentioned in your comment. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Thank you for sharing it’s always nice to read your adventures and encounters
You are welcome. Thank you Lorna.
Great read. I look forward to sharing on your experiences in real time. You are a great inspiration brother
Thank you Joseph for these kind words.
Thank you Joel. This is a captivating and knowledgeable read with a lot to note.
Thank you Asha for taking the time to read and for these kind words.
Another well written piece Joel.
I always look forward to your stories, they are very insightful, expressive and descriptive. The photos attached give life to the story. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
Wish you the best stay at the University of Michigan Law School
Thank you Pauline. I am glad that you find the posts insightful. Thank you for these kind words.
Joel, you have allowed us the opportunity to share your experience to America, Kansas. Thank you. A statement from William fulbright : ”the ability to see the world as other see it” is one I will carry with me.
Thank you Peter. I am glad there was something to carry from this post.
You write so well Joel. This was such a good read. Kudos
Thank you Maureen for these kind words and for taking the time to read the post.
A good account of the United States, land of the “free”. Travelling is in itself educational. I would wish our kinsmen the same experience. Then and only then, would our collective perception of the Global North change.
Thank you Charles for taking the time to read this post. I agree entirely, travelling is educational and it can help change our perceptions of others.